The Aeneid

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The Aeneid

I liked the rest of The Odyssey more than the part with all the monsters; I liked The Iliad more than The Odyssey; and I liked The Aeneid even more than The Iliad. In fact, I love how The Aeneid is clearly structured as a condensed complement to the earlier epics:

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I’ve now read all three in the excellent recent translations by Robert Fagles (I like that he produced these works in chronological order, but The Aeneid was the last major translation of his long and storied career; he died only two years after publishing it, in 2008). My overall reactions to The Aeneid fall under three headings:

Fathers and sons

The first thing that struck me about The Aeneid is its focus on duty and family–themes that resonate strongly with me. I posted about one such passage on another blog.

At the end of book 2, Aeneas faces a choice–take revenge on the villainous Helen, or rescue his family from the crumbling, flaming ruin of Troy? In cinematic fashion, the scene cuts from his enraged face struggling with this decision to him running through the bowels of the city, young son in his hand and elderly father on his back.

In fact, I see another structure here: the first half of the book focuses mostly on his loyalty to his father, looking to the past, and the second half focuses on his loyalty to his son, looking to the future.

Indeed, the end of book 6–his visit to his father in the underworld, and the unveiling of his divine new shield, with its illustration of his people’s glorious destiny–is the perfect transition between the two. The quote below comes right at the midpoint of the tale, and gives me goosebumps.

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Book 8, lines 854-858

Of course, the little boy from the beginning of the story grows up over the years, and by the great battle at the end, he is a young man fighting at his father’s side.

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Anthony Esolen’s Translation of Dante’s Inferno

downloadI had never read the Inferno because, unlike other classics where there is broad agreement on which translations are the best, opinion here is divided. However, over the summer I read this amazing essay by Anthony Esolen (which I cannot recommend highly enough–it may be the best essay I’ve read all year); I was so impressed that I looked to see what else he had written, and lo and behold, he’d translated Dante.

This book was a beautiful joy from beginning to end. Dante’s story is even better than I’d imagined it would be. I was surprised to see it so full of, what was for Dante, contemporary social criticism. Quite a few of the movers and shakers of his world–men who had wronged him personally–were called out by name and given the retribution of having their eternal torments depicted in poetry. Even more surprising was the fact that popes were among that number (indeed, multiple passages basically say, “Hey, Pope Boniface VIII–you suck!”).

Dante’s criticism even veers into satire at points, with the punishments of hell fitting that “poetic justice” paradigm we expect. He seemingly relishes such opportunities to kick some of his targets when they’re down; for example, noting not only that one kind of sinner might spend eternity with their heads literally turned around backwards, but that the tears they always shed are running down between the cleft in their buttocks. Other sinners are seen wallowing in raw sewage forever. Stay classy, Dante!

This is not to make light of the text at all, though. In fact, the last several sections contain some of the most gruesome, horrific scenes I’ve ever come across in a book (and I read a whole lot of Stephen King as a kid!). The final scene, in the very center of hell, is fantastically graphic: Satan, frozen from the waist down in a lake of ice, has a second and third face on either side of his giant head, and each of the three mouths is eternally chewing on one of the great traitors of history: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot. The image is incredibly vivid–below is just one of the more tasteful illustrations I found online.

Beside the text itself, Esolen has given us a great gift in this volume. The translation itself is crisp, clear, and moving, but the other features also make this a great book: the Italian text on each facing page, the extensive endnotes delving into Dante’s references in detail, and a series of appendices that provide excerpts from seminal texts that all informed Dante’s vision. I made frequent use of these, and look forward to a time when I can just sit around all day and absorb them all. For the avid reader of classics, Esolen has provided a truly fine treat.

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Reviewed: Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools

pushout_finalA review in 30 bullet points:

  • In 2005, I read David Shipler’s then-new book The Working Poor, where he used people’s narratives to build a case that the American economy was rigged against those who were poor. The beam in his eye, though, is that nearly all of his dozens of stories read like this: “So-and-so dropped out of high school, got pregnant a few times, and keeps getting arrested for drugs and shoplifting and now she can’t even get a dignified job that pays a living wage, people, it’s a nightmare for this poor victim George Bush is evil!” (His hilarious myopia was perfectly exposed here.)
  • Monique Morris uses the same storytelling strategy to make the case for systemic discrimination against black girls in American schools in Pushout, and she does it by making the exact same mistakes David Shipler made a decade ago. A typical example might look like this: “One student repeatedly cussed out the teacher in front of the class and got into fights and suddenly the random oppressors are giving her grief hey everybody this racist system is broken!
  • Of the many stories in this book, zero ever suggest that any trouble a student ever finds herself in is her own fault, not to any degree. Such a message of null responsibility seems dangerous to give to youth, and unethical for a scholar to promote.
  • Morris constantly alludes to “attitude” and “loudness” among black girls (why is such stereotyping OK for her?), and ascribes these traits to a conscious rebellion against a racist system. Again, this is never defended, nor is any alternative explanation ever explored much less refuted (an inexcusable lapse for a scholar!).
  • The girls’ stories are always treated as objectively factual, with nary a shred of skepticism from the author evident. Not to say that the girls are prevaricating–though why wouldn’t they try to look good for a sympathetic interviewer?–but who’s to say that their perceptions of their experiences are perfect? Why is no space ever given for others involved to explain any shortcomings in the girls’ memories? Or is only one side of the story valid? Only one view is privileged here? (Has Morris never seen Rashomon?)
  • A more accurate–and more honest–assessment of the girls in this book would include a more well-rounded picture of their lives. Do they have two parents at home? Did the adults in the family finish high school? Do their families work and obey the law? If the answers to the above are “no” for most of the girls portrayed in this book, that would seem significant–why hide it? If the answers are yes, that would strengthen Morris’s case, so why not advertise it? Her silence on the subject seems telling. (Or are the “no” answers also the result of racist oppression, in a conveniently permanent self-fulfilling loop of begging the question?)
  • Though Morris often throws out statistics like “X% of all suspended students are Black girls,” she never says how much of the total black female student population that percentage represents. A more useful number would be something like “X% of all black girls in America have been suspended.” A large number there would be indicative of a problem, but as it is, she’s looking at a very narrow area of the whole picture. Such obfuscated reporting is disingenuous.
  • The fact is, the vast majority of black girls are never suspended, never in trouble, and never drop out. The vast majority of black girls in America (and I say this after having taught school at several sites around a large and ethnically diverse city for 16 years) do not match the simplified description of them given by Morris. She derides “caricatures of Black femininity,” but constantly indulges in them herself.
  • Her failure to note all of this, much less deal with it, leads me to wonder why she focuses on such a tiny portion of the population; a minority of a minority, really. I suppose it’s because that’s the only way she can make her case for systemic discrimination.

  • Morris never examines, much less proves, her belief that there even is systemic discrimination. Perhaps she feels this book wasn’t the place for it. Perhaps it’s just received wisdom for her, a commonplace article of faith. At any rate, in light of the above point, there’s an enormous flaw in her theory that she needs to deal with: if there is, in fact, systemic discrimination against black girls in America’s schools, then it must be counted as a spectacular failure, for the vast majority of black girls escape the clutches of its machinations completely unscathed. This would seem to be true for all the other trendy brands of proposed “systemic discrimination” out there, also.
  • The author herself is a black woman. I’m curious what her experiences with this “racist” educational system were. Was she ever suspended? Was she ever in confrontational arguments with teachers? Was she “pushed out” by hostile school personnel? Or was she encouraged by the scores of teachers who live to advocate for minorities? Was she given extra attention and opportunities because she was black and female? And did she herself come from an intact, two-parent, law-abiding family? I wonder what the answers to these questions would say about her thesis.
  • I see from her bio in the book’s jacket that she has an advanced college degree and is married with two children. Looks like she could be a great mentor to these girls. I hope she shared with them how she became who she is today.

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Highly Recommended: Mockingbird

51IwBRUAXyL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_I think I’ve found a new favorite science fiction novel. Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis, is “set in a grim and decaying New York City in the 25th century. The population is declining, no one can read, and robots rule over the drugged, illiterate humans. With the birth rate dropping, the end of the species seems a possibility.”

The most amazing thing about this story is just how uncanny its dystopian vision is. Combine the most prescient parts of Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World and you have this. Actually, it mostly reminded me of Ayn Rand’s Anthem, but where that was just a skeleton of a fable, this is fully fleshed out.

I marked a couple of dozen passages about stupified dependency, obsession with self-fulfillment, and the joys of rediscovering civilization; there are just too many to quote. Instead, here is a picture of one page, where the hero shares a passage from a history book that explains how the world fell. I got chills. This was published in 1980. He saw where things were going perfectly.

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It’s not just a simple tale of society falling apart, though. There’s genuine love and adventure and sadness. Part of it is a Shawshank Redemption-like prison story. Part is wilderness survival. And there’s even more than that.

Just as with another great dystopian sci-fi classic, The Children of Men (which was also about the decline of the human family), there is one f-bomb, powerful for its lone status. At one point, a suicidal robot tells a pregnant woman that she should have an abortion. Let’s just say that I wholeheartedly approve of her response.

Notes and Review: Fair Isn’t Always Equal

51KK0WZvPCL._SX397_BO1,204,203,200_Last semester, administrators at my school bought copies of this book about grading in the “differentiated” classroom for the staff and encouraged teachers to read it. “This is the direction we’re moving in,” we were told. I don’t know if this dictate comes from them or their own bosses far above us all, but based on my notes for this book, I’m worried about that direction.

  • Chapter 3: the first of the big red flags, this quote: “He or she has to understand each student’s ‘truth,’ and convince students that their perceptions are incorrect or incomplete, and that the ‘truth’ the teacher has is the one they should adopt.” (20) Creepy indoctrination much? A similar puppet-master mindset comes across later on page 129: “[grading on a curve is] an obsolete practice indicative of less enlightened times. We’ve progressed…” Fascistic rhetoric really shouldn’t have any place here.
  • The top of page 24 uses the phrase “death bell” when the author means “death knell.” Similarly, the bottom of page 182 mentions “the big questions that get circumnavigated in our daily attempts,” when clearly the word he was looking for was “circumvented.” There are more examples. Such mistakes from an “expert” make me worry.
  • Page 31: “Some students’ mindmaps of their analyses of Renaissance art rival the most cogent, written versions of their classmates.” Yes, but mustn’t everyone learn to write well?
  • Chapter 7: a meandering, pointless mess of gobbledygook here.
  • Page 90: grading is “a single symbol in a tiny box on a piece of thin paper that may or may not make it out from the crumpled darkness of the boom bag–and only if parents ask for it.” Isn’t that a bit of a straw man? Those always worry me. And do the reforms to grades suggested for report cards in chapter 14 really fix this? If not, why not?
  • One problem with edu-expert books like this is that they tend to see each factor of teaching in a neat vacuum, separate from the rest. For instance, Wormeli often paints problems and offers solutions that either have already been solved by 504s and rubrics, or that couldn’t be solved in the ways he suggests because of 504s and rubrics! Chapter 7 has too many examples of this.
  • The mindset behind Chapter 8 is almost entirely proven false by that one simple Woody Allen quote: “80% of success in life is showing up.”
  • Chapter 8: “laziness is a myth…laziness doesn’t exist.” (104) Students aren’t immune to human nature. Nobody is immune to human nature.
  • Page 108: “To purposely set up a compelling goal that everyone else can easily earn but they cannot seems to be a penalty of sorts.” It’s called life. Good grief. America’s young don’t need more bubble wrap.
  • Chapter 9: “There is no solid evidence to support the current emphasis on students doing large amounts of, or even daily, homework.” (120) Besides all the evidence that might be given here, I might suggest Wormeli read up on Robert Marzano’s work, except that he must already know it well–he cites four of Marzano’s books in his own. Seems oddly convenient to ignore him now.
  • Chapter 15 is a weird collection of ways for administrators to manipulate teachers into accepting the advice in this book. Page 185, for instance, suggests slipping an “expert” into the teachers lounge to casually strike up conversations in favor of these reforms. Seriously. The last of many red flags.

Overall, this book seems like slick pseudo-professional propaganda for things like unlimited late work with no penalties, minimum F, and abolishing homework (or graded homework, at least). The author’s tone makes it clear that this is just science, people, not an attempt to make things easier for kids and harder for teachers. Let’s put it this way: if you really were trying to dumb down our system so that more students do well and we all magically look better, isn’t this exactly how you’d do it? Shouldn’t that make us wary?

Not to seem too cynical, I actually highlighted lots of good ideas in the book, but here’s the thing: all of them were reviews of simple, common sense teacher training that had nothing to do directly with the main thrust of the book. So why were those things here? You’d find that same material in any of a number of beginning education textbooks.

I suppose this truly is the direction into which we’re going. The signs are clear. Alas.

 

Highly Recommended: The World’s Strongest Librarian

51HOYIpg0PL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_From this book’s Amazon description: “A funny and uplifting story of how a Mormon kid with Tourette’s found salvation in books and weight lifting.” What’s not to like? Here’s what appealed to me about each part of that summary:

FUNNY: Josh Hanagarne is a natural comedian. His panache for characterization and anecdote are evident on nearly every page, and his memoir is filled with plenty of amusing characters and anecdotes–most chapters start with stories about his work in libraries, which reminded me of the McSweeney’s feature “Dispatches From a Public Librarian,” which I also loved.

UPLIFTING: This is no Hallmark movie. There’s an unvarnished–but still generally lighthearted–feel to this story that does leave you feeling positive about things.

MORMON: Spoiler: Josh ends the book not active in the church, but he is never bitter about it; there’s no axe to grind here. Instead, all of his descriptions of Mormons are positive. He even relates a couple of earlier spiritual experiences and doesn’t try to downplay them–they’re still very real to him. That’s rare and wonderful. Alas, his only references to the Book of Mormon are to lament how boring it is, though.

TOURETTE’S: Josh handles the telling of his experiences with Tourette’s with the same deft narrating that strengthens his humor as well.

BOOKS: I’ll love most anything that name drops as many great titles as lovingly as this book does. Josh has some great taste. I also loved his ecstatic passion for libraries.

WEIGHT LIFTING: Just as with the humor, religion, and Tourette’s, his stories of working out are enthusiastically entertaining, especially the segments towards the end of the book with his main trainer, a perfectly amusing, realistic, and inspiring character.

This is also a fine memoir about a young man starting a family, and loving every tedious and frustrating moment that entails. So really, this book has it all.

 

 

Reviewed: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader

51mWgMXnxbL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Around the middle of this book, Cadwallader writes, “The silence that grew between them seemed like a third person” (148).  Near the end, we get this similarly poetic description of the same thing: “The silence began as a small and frightened thing, perched on the ledge of the window, but as Ranaulf sat in stillness, it grew, very slowly, and filled up the parlor, wrapped itself around his neck and warmed his back, curled under his knees and around his feet, floated along the walls, tucked into the corners, nestled in the crevices of stone” (263).

This is decent writing, but as these examples suggest, The Anchoress tends to be desperate and pretentious.

That’s true of the book and of the titular character. The anchoress is a young woman in 13th century England who has volunteered to be shut in a small cell to spend the rest of her life meditating and praying in isolation for her village.

That’s great fodder for an original and introspective tale, but the book is held back by more than just repetitive figures of speech.

Though Cadwallader drops in plenty of period vocabulary every now and then, the dialogue is usually so modern that it’s distracting. A lot of this book’s 13th century speech might as well use “like” and “dude,” for all the accuracy it conveys.

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Recommended Reading: Michael Dirda’s Browsings

51etSw1BApL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Near the end of this collection of short essays, Dirda says that his goal with the original weekly columns was “to entice people to try unexpected books, old books, neglected books, genre books, upsetting books, downright strange books.”

Mission accomplished.

Dirda is a book reviewer–a professional book nerd–and his infectious passion for all things bookish is on full display here. It’s hard not to get caught up in the joy of his love for books, though search me for why anyone would try to resist.

His voice in these essays is kind and witty, his boyish enthusiasm rattling off each page like any kid geeking out about a new obsession. Some of the casual chattiness comes off as a bit contrived, but never distractingly so. Dirda is the essayist that Nora Ephron wanted to be.

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Early Christian Fathers

fathersI’ve been reading a great collection of writings by Christian leaders from just after New Testament times. I’ve largely enjoyed it, but as I get into the second half, I’m stalling out–my enthusiasm for this one is just winding down, so I’m putting it back on the shelf for now (sorry, Justin Martyr).

The Ensign had a great article about these writings in the August 1976 issue.

Of the documents I’ve read so far, all were at least good, and some were really great. The four marked with an A+ I highly recommend to everybody. Here are my notes and quotes:

 

THE FIRST EPISTLE OF CLEMENT: A+

This one comes from a bishop who knew and was mentored by the Apostles, and his letter is amazing. It’s actually from within the first century, making it contemporary with the New Testament, and was even included in some early versions of the New Testament. It isn’t canonized scripture for us, but it isn’t far off…the Spirit is there in this one.

35 How blessed and amazing are God’s gifts, dear friends!  2Life with immortality, splendor with righteousness, truth with confidence, faith with assurance, self-control with holiness! And all these things are within our comprehension.  3What, then, is being prepared for those who wait for him? The Creator and Father of eternity, the all-holy, himself knows how great and wonderful it is.  4We, then, should make every effort to be found in the number of those who are patiently looking for him, so that we may share in the gifts he has promised.  5And how shall this be, dear friends? If our mind is faithfully fixed on God; if we seek out what pleases and delights him; if we do what is in accord with his pure will, and follow in the way of truth. If we rid ourselves of all wickedness, evil, avarice, contentiousness, malice, fraud, gossip, slander, hatred of God, arrogance, pretension, conceit, and inhospitality.

 

THE LETTERS OF IGNATIUS, BISHOP OF ANTIOCH:  A-

There are seven of these letters–as a whole, I give them an A-, but his letters to the Romans and to the Philadelphians each get a solid A, and my favorite, to the Ephesians, gets an A+. A quote:

9 I have heard that some strangers came your way with a wicked teaching. But you did not let them sow it among you. You stopped up your ears to prevent admitting what they disseminated. Like stones of God’s Temple, ready for a building of God the Father, you are being hoisted up by Jesus Christ, as with a crane (that’s the cross!), while the rope you use is the Holy Spirit. Your faith is what lifts you up, while love is the way you ascend to God.

You are all taking part in a religious procession,185 carrying along with you your God, shrine, Christ, and your holy objects, and decked out from tip to toe in the commandments of Jesus Christ. I too am enjoying it all, because I can talk with you in a letter, and congratulate you on changing your old way of life and setting your love on God alone.

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Reviewed and Recommended: The Fifth Gospel, by Ian Caldwell

6199d0InE2L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The world waited ten years for a follow-up to the amazing novel The Rule of Four, and last year we finally got it. One of the co-authors of The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell, published The Fifth Gospel, a dense and literary murder mystery set entirely in the Vatican.

It’s a worthy second work, though not quite as gripping and fast-paced as his previous book. In fact, it’s quite slow at times–there’s not much action here. It’s more Agatha Christie than Dan Brown.

But it wasn’t the plot that kept me going. It was the narrator. The Rule of Four was about college students, written by two guys in that phase of life themselves. Ten years later, Caldwell is a husband and the father of three small children, a young professional settling into the life he’s established. Again, this is all reflected in the narrator.

Caldwell loves the family that are his characters and he wants us to, also. And we do.

Even better, the narrator is a religious scholar and a priest. I don’t know if Caldwell is religious or not, but his book is. It doesn’t aim to be faith promoting, but it takes religion seriously. In the eyes of the narrator and the world around him, faith is a valuable, respectable thing that has real heft in our minds and spirits. I was immediately comfortable reading this book in a way that I haven’t been with a novel in a long time.

The worldview of the novel is mature and realistic in a way that most of our society has forgotten is even possible.

Caldwell’s writing is skilled, and yes, there’s plenty of intriguing trivia here to keep the da Vinci Code crowd interested. Like The Rule of Four, The Fifth Gospel largely revolves around reverence for a historical and rare ancient text, another huge plus in its favor.

As soon as I finished it, I realized that I liked it enough that I’ll read whatever Caldwell writes next, whatever it is and whenever it comes out. Hopefully it won’t take another ten years. What better recommendation can a reviewer give?

Reviewed: Pity the Beautiful, by Dana Gioia

41DlOh9NUtL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve read some great essays by Gioia as they’ve popped onto my radar over the years, but I’ve only seen a smattering of the actual poetry of one of America’s best and most important poets.

Having just read his most recent collection, I can highly recommend it. Gioia writes about the kind of thoughts and concerns I also care about. His work is what the kids I teach might call “relatable,” though they themselves, ironically, would find his meditations on careers, economics, rituals, and domestic relationships mostly incomprehensible, coming as they do squarely from the heart of a middle aged, middle class man. He’s the kind of man that the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Obsolete Man” memorialized, and like that classic bit of TV, this book of poetry might be called prophetic in some future day, when the target audience of like-minded readers will be ever and ever smaller.

There’s no pretension of universality here. In fact, that’s what leads to my one major ding against the book–it includes several poems translated from the Italian by other writers. As good as they are, the tone and style are wholly off from Gioia’s, and break the unity of the rest of the book, like an anachronism in an otherwise convincing fantasy.

Among the best works are “Prayer at Winter Solstice,” which includes such great lines as these:

Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.
Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.

Blessed are hunger and thirst, loneliness and all forms of desire.
Blessed is the labor that exhausts us without end.

Blessed are the night and the darkness that blinds us.
Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel.

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Reviewed: The Brainy Bunch

downloadI wanted to like this book because I think I would like this family.  Sadly, I’m judging the book based on its content, not how appealing I find the authors.

The cover promises that this is “The Harding family’s method for college ready by age twelve.”  That’s what they’re famous for: of their ten children, those who have turned twelve by now have all been enrolled in at least some kind of college class by then.

But the book isn’t really a useful how-to.  There are a couple of short chapters in the second half that address their methods, but it’s mostly common sense: lots of reading, daily writing of any kind followed by revising, lots of math exercises and computer math games, and then a lot self-directed research on subjects and fields that interest them (and by research, they often mean Google). And a ton of prep for the SAT.

There really isn’t too much more than that.

So what’s in this book?  The first half is entirely stories about the family.  They’re nice, but probably not what anybody’s paying for.  I’ve read the books by the Duggar family, and they also tell stories about themselves, but their stories are just to support the larger purpose of sharing their ideas about life.  For the Hardings, it’s the other way around.

Many chapters are followed by pages written by the children, including the very young ones, that are often nonsense.  The book ends with some random messages from the father to people who are not the reader.  All this shows what this book really is: a vanity project.  That’s not the worst thing in the world, but it hardly inspires confidence that this is worth the reader’s time.

It’s also not very well written.  Each chapter reads like it was written independently of the rest, with no guiding plan.  Concepts repeat themselves endlessly–we’re treated to the definition of quincenera, for example, multiple times.   Continue reading

Notes on Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End 

childhood'sIn June I read Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.  It was excellent; clearly a precursor to the 2001: A Space Odyssey script.

Some stray thoughts as I was reading:

“There were too many brilliant amateurs, and the changed economic conditions had made the old system obsolete.”  ch. 10.  After superior alien saviors come to Earth and create a paradise, humanity uses its free time to get awesome at everything, thus the changed economy.  Are we seeing something similar now with blog reporting and YouTube videos?  I think we are.

I love prescient science fiction predictions, but Clarke says that humanity’s vastly increased leisure has the dystopian result of us starting to watch TV for up to…wait for it…3 hours a day!  This was written in the 50’s.  Isn’t that cute?

“In this galaxy of ours,” murmured Karellen, “there are eighty-seven thousand million suns.  Even that figure gives only a faint idea of the immensity of space.  In challenging it, you would be like ants attempting to label and classify all the grains of sand in all the desserts of the world.”  ch. 14.  This is why I love good sci-fi.  It intelligently inculcates a healthy, humble reverence for the universe.

It was the end of civilization, the end of all that men had striven for since the beginning of time.  In the space of a few days, humanity had lost its future, for the heart of any race is destroyed, and its will to survive is utterly broken, when its children are taken from it.  ch. 19.  Alas, Clarke’s generation never could have imagined that civilization would voluntarily extinguish itself through epidemic demographic decline, and would celebrate it all the way to the collective nursing home.  Like his naive TV watching warning, reality turned out far scarier than he prophesied.  It’s always sad when tragic speculation turns out to be, if anything, too optimistic.

Back to Blood

9781619698154_p0_v2_s260x420I spent most of January listening to the audio book version of Tom Wolfe’s newest novel, Back to Blood, during my commute to and from work.  It was 22 hours of pure joy.

Wolfe is our modern Mark Twain, our finest satirist and journalistic chronicler of our society as it really is.  As such, it’s only fitting that my comments here take the form of an interview with myself:

Q: What did you think of the narration by Lou Diamond Phillips?

A: Amazing.  I’ll never be able to read this book without hearing his voice now.  It was perfect.  Not only did he have to do characters of both genders and all ages, but several ethnicities, and even speaking fragments of four other languages!  If there’s some kind of industry award for audio book performance, he should get the highest honor.  Listening to him work was bliss from beginning to end.

Q: Didn’t all the sex scenes bother you?  Didn’t you think they were poorly written?

A: Wolfe catches a lot of flak for these two almost contradictory criticisms, but I think they work together.   Continue reading

Please Read Kent Haruf’s New Book

benedictionWhen Dan Brown’s sequel to The Da Vinci Code was about to come out, I put it on hold at my library.  I was something like 800th on a waiting list that kept growing.

I’ve been on the waiting list for Kent Haruf’s upcoming book for a while now, and the release is less than two weeks away.

I’m number 4 out of 5.

Haruf deserves to be more popular.  I’ve read two of his earlier novels, Plainsong and Eventide, and deeply loved both, especially Plainsong, which is one of my favorite books.

Think of Haruf as Cormac McCarthy, but without the stark violence.  His tone is just as detached, just as washed-out as McCarthy’s, but where McCarthy wants us to ruminate on the condition of a fallen world, Haruf actively wants us to rebuild our broken communities.  His work always left me with a soft hope for the decency of most people, and the summary I’ve read for his new book, Benediction, brings it all back.

I really look forward to this.  I hope you do, too.